Baseball and the Military in Philadelphia
Fresh off a revitalizing visit to Philadelphia, I’m back to blogging. My wife, daughter, and I spent the last four days in the “City of Brotherly Love,” principally to attend a symposium celebrating the connection between athletes and the military. On Friday morning, I served as the keynote speaker of the event, wrapping up a two-day program that included an informative round table discussion and an entertaining ballgame in an oldtime setting.
On Thursday night, we attended an exhibition game between the Delco League (Delaware County) All-Stars and a team known as the Military All-Stars. Officially formed in 1990, the Military All-Stars have reintroduced the practice of traveling all stars teams who journey through the United States and throughout the world as a way of rewarding their best military ballplayers and boosting morale for those soldiers serving in combat abroad. In many ways, the Military All-Stars are continuing the custom that was carried on in World War II and the Korean War, when professional major league players played at military bases and as part of traveling tours, but became a lost art during the Vietnam years.
The 2008 Military All-Stars, under the capable guidance of head coach and CEO Terry Allvord, put on an impressive seven-inning display against the Delco League stars. Utilizing an aggressive style of taking extra bases, the Military Stars played fundamentally sound in all aspects of the game (and who would have expected anything less from a military team). Running out every ball and putting pressure on Delco defenders at every turn, the military Stars turned in a rousing 6-3 win. Given the lack of stability on the military roster–they run through about 130 players in a given year because many of their players are called back into active duty–their ability to play a smooth, team-like game while making few mistakes struck me as particularly impressive.
The exhibition game took place at the quaint setting of Widener University’s baseball park, a charming little facility tucked away in the corner of the campus. With no lights at the ballpark, the two teams played part of the game in the glow of twilight, which gave the game a throwback feel to a 1940s game at Wrigley Field. The ballpark also features a short porch in left field, topped off by a high-rising fence that some call the “blue monster” because of its similarity in size to “The Wall” at Fenway Park. All in all, Widener provided a relaxed pastoral setting for an entertaining game.
The Thursday night game also featured several VIP appearances. Legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas threw out the first pitch and World War II veteran (not to mention major league alumnus) Mickey Vernon presented an award for the best defensive play of the game. We’ll have more on Mickey later in the story. The night was capped off by an appearance by Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a native of the Philadelphia area who happened to be in town to play an interleague series with the Phillies. After presenting the game’s MVP Award, Scioscia graciously took photographs with all who asked (including yours truly and family).
The second day of the event featured a symposium called “Athletes in the Military,” a program that was highlighted by the appearance of five war veterans, including two from the NFL and three from baseball. Vernon, along with retired Philadelphia A’s ace Bobby Shantz and former Negro Leagues catching standout Stanley Glenn, all participated. Based on the conversations I had with each of these World War II veterans, it would be difficult to find three more gentlemanly fellows than Glenn, Shantz, and Vernon.
Glenn played for the Philadelphia Stars from 1944 to 1950, establishing a reputation as a good defensive catcher with above-average power. He caught Satchel Paige for two seasons, while getting to know most of the Negro League stars from the era of the 1940s. When I went to shake hands with Stanley, I immediately noticed the mammoth size of his hands, which looked like small pitchforks. They were catcher’s hands indeed, with large palms and thick, long fingers that must have been particularly helpful in handling the deliveries of Paige and other flamethrowers. Speaking in a hoarse but intelligible voice, Stanley fondly recalled his days playing in black baseball. And while proud of his military service, he stressed that he had been drafted and would not have otherwise volunteered for the Army in 1945. It was a sincere answer from a man who had already sacrificed much during his career.
Though well spoken and fully capable of handling himself in one-on-one conversation, Shantz does not like to speak in public and chose not to partake in the round table discussion with Glenn, Vernon, and the others. Luckily, I had the privilege of sitting next to Shantz during the symposium, and as I remembered from an encounter with him in Cooperstown a decade ago, found him to be just as approachable, upbeat, and enjoyable in casual conversation. Bobby remains a standout athlete, having shot a 76 on the golf course earlier this week. He appears to have put on very few pounds from his playing days, when he was listed at 140 pounds. And yes, he’s still five-foot-nine, which didn’t prevent him from winning 24 games for the A’s in 1954. Because of scouts’ current obsession with pitchers’ heights, Shantz might never have received an opportunity in today’s game, but he was good enough to claim the MVP Award in ’54 on his way to winning 119 major league games.
And then there’s the beloved Mickey Vernon. I can see now why Mickey was regarded as one of the most charismatic and popular players of the 1940s and fifties. A two-time batting champion, Vernon never brags about his vast abilities as a hitter; he just fondly remembers teammates and stories from his playing days. He patiently signs autographs and answers questions, even silly ones that might come from the mouth of this reporter.
As impressive as his personality, Mickey’s health and conditioning are just as striking. He just turned 90, but he looks more like 60, with a full shock of hair that might make some middle-aged men jealous. He remains extremely sharp, with an excellent recall of detail and little tendency to exaggerate accomplishments. Given Mickey’s character and his ability on the ballfield–in many ways, he was an early version of Keith Hernandez–it’s understandable why so many people in the Philadelphia region would like to see Vernon enshrined in Cooperstown. His next chance comes in December, when the Veterans Committee meets again.
I also asked Vernon about his feelings toward the Yankees, who employed him as a scout and coach during his final job in baseball. Half expecting to hear some grumbles about the ownership of George Steinbrenner, I was surprised to hear Mickey say that he loved working for the Yankees. As proof, he showed me the Yankee watch that he still wears, given to him by the organization for his years of service in coaching and scouting.
Finally, a recap of the weekend would not be complete without a tip of the hat to event organizer Jim Vankoski. This is now the third time that Jim has invited me to speak in Philadelphia; without fail, he has treated my family with genuine consideration and respect. As an event organizer–something that he doesn’t do professionally but simply does because of his passion for the game and its history–he exhibits boundless energy, prepares diligently, and makes all of his guests feel welcome.
Thanks, Jim, for another fine time in Philadelphia.